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Friday, October 24, 2014

Response to Cheating (Dear Katie V3 #8)

Dear Katie,

Today I am writing to you about the joy you receive as a teacher when a student "gets it".  However, it is not my student who "got it" but your first grade cousin.

A few weeks ago, your aunt and I received a note home from Maddie's teacher telling us she was looking on another student's math paper to complete her own.  Due to this, Maddie's name was moved to the "Red" (a classroom management device in her first grade classroom indicating you did something wrong).  The teacher told her the importance of doing her own work even if she finds math to be very difficult.  When we talked with Maddie, we didn't show anger about the cheating.  We were afraid doing so would only cause her to hate math even more than she did.  We stressed that Mommy and Daddy want to see her do her best in math, even if her best wasn't a perfect score.  We stressed we (Mom, Dad, and teacher) wanted to see what she did wrong so we could help her do it right.

In the past week, Maddie told us she was in the "Red" for cheating on math again.  We wrote an email to her teacher, but her teacher assured us that was not the reason why she was in the "Red", and that the reason was trivial and she didn't need to inform us by a note (not that she was hiding it from us).  Maddie likes to please and gets upset when she disappoints people, placing her in the "Red" will shape her up quickly, and it did, according to the teacher.

Reading the response, we realized that we needed to talk with Maddie about being upfront with us when we ask her what she did wrong (I think she thought we would be less mad about cheating and more mad about misbehavior).  But a small line in the teacher's response made us realize our daughter got the lesson that cheating is wrong, and that all of us (parents & teacher) would rather see her do her best.

"She actually voluntarily goes to the back table to do her math so she won't be distracted.  I am very proud of her"

That night, after talking with Maddie about being upfront with me, I asked her about sitting by herself for math.  She said, "I want to do my own work and not look on someone else's paper."

SHE GOT IT! (tears welling up)

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Free Form Radio & The Dutch (Dear Katie V3 #7)

Dear Katie,

When you hear a DJ on a radio station introduce a song, he/she probably did not select it to be played.  A station manager typically selects the songs in the rotation for the day and some DJ's are nothing more than talking heads who stick to the script leading you from one song to the next.

Things are different for my high school friend Rich Russo, one of the few free-form DJ's on the air in the New York market.  On Sunday nights, Anything, Anything with Rich Russo, comes on to the airwaves (on stations listed below).  He can play any songs he chooses. In between, he shares his views on events of the day, memories evoked by certain songs, history behind the songs, etc.  His comments are his own, the playlists are his own.  Sometimes he will play a song with certain word or theme, songs in honor of people's birthdays, and even pulls out songs like William Shatner's (Captain Kirk) spoken word performance of Elton John's Rocket Man  or Pebbles and Bamm Bamm singing Let the Sun Shine in.  He also introduces his listeners to new artists.  And somehow always works in plugs for one of his sponsors,  Sixpoint Beer.  You will not be hearing his playlist on Top 40 stations.

It's all very eclectic in a world that seeks more and more to be standardized.

He doesn't build a audience of casual listeners, but loyal listeners who are drawn into his show because they appreciate the passion he brings every week.  When you listen to the show, you don't know what to expect.  You turn to his show because you have come to know him and have built a "relationship" with him though his banter.  By the wide variety of music he plays, you come to appreciate his extensive knowledge of music. While on one side you have the comfort of listening to a "friend", you also have an anticipation of not knowing what to expect from him from week to week, but you listen because you have grown to trust him.

What can a free-form radio host teach us about education?

My assistant principal, Brad Currie, arranged for a group of Dutch educators to come our middle school a few weeks ago.  It was great to talk even for a few minutes (wish it was longer) with Dutch teachers and education professors about educational pedagogy and philosophy.  One professor asked me if I came up with my own lesson plans.  I said yes.  She said that wasn't the case in the Netherlands.  We discussed the pros and cons to scripted lessons (One pro was that the instructor did not necessarily need a lot of background knowledge when working off a scripted lesson, where she felt in our method that I must have a strong background knowledge in my subject, history, to make it work).

The biggest con to the scripted lesson for me was that it does not allow the teacher to display their passion for the topic.  When a teacher is passionate both in delivery and content, the student is drawn into the world that is being discussed (much like how the free-form DJ draws his/her listeners into the  music they are playing and discussing).

When the teacher has freedom to make the class memorable,
The students will remember the lessons learned.

The Dutch education professor agreed that freedom for the teacher is more engaging for the student (and shouldn't that be the goal?).  However, there is a push in some districts, even in some states, that every teacher teach the same thing, the same way, to every student.  Some educational bureaucrat making the decision without ever stepping into a classroom to understand both the students or the teacher.  A classroom of students and teachers is a social creature, not an industrial machine.  The push and pull of levers in one classroom will not necessarily work in another.  Any other belief dehumanizes both teacher and students.

Can we truly say we value diversity if every day in every classroom in America
students are learning the same thing the same way?

The educators who I respect, the ones that I have learned from the most, are "Free-Form educators" who don't depend upon textbooks and workbooks for how they instruct the class, but take those ideas and reshape them to make the lessons their own in a creative and imaginative way.  I also think students respect and learn the most from those "Free-Form educators" as well.

Uncle Kevin


Anything, Anything with Rich Russo can be heard on WXRP 107.1 "The Peak" at 9PM and WDHA 105.5 from 11PM-1AM on stations for us in northern NJ. He can also be heard down the Jersey shore on "WRAT" 95.9, Springfield, MA on "The Lazer" 99.3, and in Washington D.C. area "The Gamut" 820AM and 103.5 WTOP

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why the Angst about Rote? (Dear Katie V3 #6)

Dear Katie,

I am going to conclude my series of notes about rote memorization with the reason for my angst (Google This! and The Rote Strawman). It actually is not due to any pressure being placed upon me in my classroom.  It is due to the way that worksheets are instructing your 1st grade cousin to learn math.

When I was young, we had to fill out worksheets that had simple math equations, 1+1=?, 1+2=?, 1+3=?, over and over again until the answers became automatic.  We may not have understood what it meant when we learned it, but as time went on, and we developed intellectually, we understood the answers we memorized.  We understood when we should add or multiply as our intellect grew.  We used flash cards to memorize our addition and subtraction.  We filled out multiplication tables, over and over again, until 5*8 was automatically 40 in our minds.

Today, this is referred to derisively as Drill and Kill.

In today's world of let's push kids into upper level math before they are ready (or into math courses most will never use outside of school, how is that authentic?), your cousin, a beginning reader, is asked to read a word problem.

Here is a basic one.  Some have instructions that your aunt and I struggled to understand.

"Johnny has 8 goldfish, he flushes 3 down the toilet because they died, how many goldfish does he have left." (OK, that is not the actual problem, but you get the point).

In a box next to the word problem, your cousin draws 8 fish, crosses out 3, and has 5 left.

In the blank lines she writes 8 then writes down 3 next to the minus sign and writes down the number 5 as the answer because that's how many fishes have not been crossed out.

I ask her without her looking on the paper, "What is 8-3?"

Her answer "I don't know" (even though she just "completed" the problem).

The math problem did not help her learn 8-3=5 
nor did it help her understand the process.

It reinforced something she has known how to do since she was 3.  COUNT!

She counted to 8 as she drew the 8 fish.  She counted to 3 when she placed X's on the 3 fish that were flushed down the toilet, and then she counted the number of fish that did not have X's, which was 5.

And when your aunt and I ask her a math problem, instead of spitting out the question, we watch her counting on her fingers (and I have seen middle school kids doing the same thing also).

And why can she count?  Because you aunt counted with her over and over again as a child to 20, her preschool teacher counted with her over and over again until 20, and then her kindergarten teacher had her write over and over again up to 100.  What's that called?

Rote Memorization

And why can she even complete those problems, because she learned to count  BY ROTE.

Your cousin is not a genius, but she doesn't struggle academically either.  We are told she is a good reader for her age, and enjoys learning.  Yet, math frustrates her.  I have witnessed her cry over it.

Your aunt was told by a friend that her daughter who is the same age was frustrated also by math, so she put her into Kumon and she is now successful.  And what does Kumon do that the schools don't?

"Drill and Kill" math facts.


I won't pay someone else to do what the school should be doing.  Guess I'll be printing out "drill and kill" math facts sheets. 

Uncle Kevin


Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rote Memorization Strawman (Dear Katie V3 #5)

Dear Katie,

In my last note I wrote to you (Google This) is about the disdain that some educators display toward "rote memorization" as if it is archaic and out of touch for modern times.  I hope I established that there is a reason that students should learn facts "by rote" and that it is based on a simple idea that I was taught in Ed Psych, younger minds are more concrete and develop into abstract thinkers as they develop. (Yet, there seems to be a push to have them to be abstract thinkers when they are not developmentally ready).  The facts they memorize become the building blocks for deeper and richer understanding of texts, mathematical problems, solutions to problems, etc.

Rote memorization is an easy target because those that attack it have built a straw man.  When they say rote, the picture that is induced is one of a strict teacher who drones the same questions as he/she walks up and the perfectly straight rows, in order, again and again, until the student has repeated the correct answer so many times that just like Pavlov's dog; when the teacher asks the question (the bell), the student responds with the right answer (salivates).  The term "rote" reminds people of a classroom that the students are bored out of their skulls, where 50 minutes feels more like 500, and half the kids are asleep on their desktop, drool coming our of their mouths.

Teaching facts by rote does not have to be a boring classroom.

You have been in my classroom.  Would you define it as "boring"?  When I do the "game quizzes" where kids compete as teams over the course of a marking period in order to win the "class championship", I am practicing nothing more than "rote memorization".  I am reviewing vocabulary terms over and over again in order for the students to memorize it.  It would be rare for one of my students to refer to these games as boring.  In history, when a student knows people and events by "rote", they will better understand sources they read, see, or hear, be able to defend or explain stances they take on certain questions (because they will equipped with the facts to back it up), and make connections between different eras and regions throughout world history.

Memorized facts are the foundation that higher level thinking is based.

But rote learning can be seen in other ways also.  What do people think the video games are for little kids that asks the user to shoot down the right answer to math problems?  It is the modern version of the teacher walking up and down the aisle asking kids "What is 1+1? What is 2+2?".  Current online classroom games such as Kahoot (https://getkahoot.com) turn you classroom into a game show as students review materials they are asked to memorize.

A teacher that only teaches material by rote in middle and high school are not preparing their students well.  Students at those levels need to be guided in how to incorporate the facts they memorized into their expressions of thought and their creation of new ideas and schemes.

However, to dismiss all "rote" learning as a technique of days gone is disingenuous to how students learn and what will be need in their chosen field or profession.  It seems that every job as procedures and steps that need to be memorized and and for the person to be able to know automatically in order for the worker to be most effective.

I don't think you would be going to a doctor for very long who google searched you every symptom or entered them into WebMD.


Uncle Kevin


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Google This! (Dear Katie V3 #4)

Dear Katie,

I was at an education conference over the summer in a class on paperless classrooms, when I asked a question about multiple choice assessments.  The young teacher who was running the class flashed a "Oh, my poor dear" smile across her face and explained to me, "the dinosaur teacher who knew little about modern-techno education" that it was the philosophy of her's and her school not to assess information that could be memorized or accessed by a simple Google search.

Twenty years ago, your uncle was a bit more fiery and would have used the opportunity to blast the smugness of her response, but as a man nearing 50, I am proud to say I have learned some decorum.  I just sat there with the "You don't really believe the BS you just spread" smile on my face.

What I wanted to say was, "That's funny, my wife is busy studying to take a multiple choice test on her medical knowledge in order to be re-certified as a Physician Assistant (a position that allows her to perform many of the duties of a doctor except begin her own practice)."

So, multiple choice tests are good enough 
to certify knowledge in our medical professionals 
but not in our students.

Rote learning or memorization of facts has received a bad rap in the past several years.  An attitude has been created that basic math facts aren't even that important to "drill and kill".  Students just need to understand what to do because a calculator can handle the calculation.

Facts learned through memorization is foundational in all areas of life.

Point 1: The Validity of Memorization is Taught in Your Undergrad Ed Courses

Younger learners are more concrete learners and become abstract as they develop.  I see that each year since my role as a middle school teacher is to assist my students in that transition. 

So why is there such an emphasis on understanding at the younger grade levels when students are designed to memorize.  As their minds develop, they can take those facts and analyze, synthesize, and evaluate (Bloom's taxonomy in action).  It seems we are missing out at building a knowledge base in our students when they are more capable of absorbing facts and just hoping for the best as they grow older.

I'm sure that my History & Philosophy of Education professor at The King's College, Dr. Joyce Anderson, would be pleasantly surprised that the young man who used to stumble into her 8AM class in his sweatshirt, shorts, and baseball hat (and usually late), learned, retained, and uses any of that when designing lessons.

Point 2: A multiple choice question isn't designed for recall, but for recognition. 

I have shared this point for years with parents.  I am not preparing students for an appearance on Jeopardy, but I do want to see if they recognize terms, ideas, and people when presented with it.  For example, if a news report discusses decisions coming out of Montpelier, a student who knows his/her states and capitals should know it is talking about Vermont, that it is in the northeast, or hopefully, at the very least, know it is a state capital in the United States.  

Memorization is vital to understanding. 

We use multiple choice tests as a quick way to see if students have retained important foundational knowledge. (There are other ways to design a multiple choice question to assess understanding, but that is for another post).

Think about how difficult it would be to read a historical fiction book based during the American Civil War without foundational knowledge.  It would impede your comprehension of the material.  It would slow down your reading rate as you decided to either determine meaning from context or reach for your computer to Google Search the name or event you didn't know.

Point 3: It is vital in Google Searches.

In order to do any Google Search, you need foundational terms, not only to begin the search, but to evaluate each search result.

Final Thoughts

No one really believes it is "mere rote memorization", memorizing facts are an important foundational piece in learning and explaining what you are learning.  

Think about learning to play an instrument.  The foundational part is memorizing the notes and fingering on the instrument, music theory comes after you have mastered that part.

Musicians begin by memorizing notes and fingering
Music Theory (Understanding) Come Later

Two suggested readings to supplement this idea:

ED Hirsch (book): Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know

Dorothy Sayers (essay): The Lost Tools of Learning


And finally, 
memorization is very important when you're married.  
Better remember birthdays and anniversaries.

Uncle Kevin